Southern Exposure: Telling Jerusalem Differently

“Ancient Jerusalem Safari” said the sign on the side of the open-sided bus. It was parked this morning in the lot at the end of the promenade that stretches from UN Hill almost to Hebron Road. The promenade is an arc of stone walkways and stairs, of lawns and landscaping with a view northward of the Old City walls and the Dome of the Rock, which appear just close enough to be reachable, just far enough off to still be the double-page color illustration of the city at the end of the quest that I read about in a childhood book whose name I’ve forgotten but whose story I think I’ve remembered for a moment when I wake from a dream.

The promenade may be my favorite spot in South Jerusalem, partly because of the view and the quiet, partly because both Palestinians and Israelis spend time there. Riding my bike there on a weekday, I’ll pass Israeli joggers and women from Jebal Mukkaber in ankle-length dresses and sneakers out for their health walk. On one park bench I’ll see a young Orthodox couple, on another a young Palestinian couple – both having found a place public enough that it’s not immodest to be meeting there, private enough that they can really talk. In the morning, I usually pass several Jews praying by themselves, facing northward. In the afternoon, I’ll see a Muslim or three, kneeling toward the south. On Saturday afternoons, families from both sides of towns are picnicking and playing soccer. Whole congregations – especially ones that give women a role – come here to pray on the night of Tisha Be’av or at dawn on Shavuot instead of walking to the Western Wall, where the crowds of ultra-Orthodox brook no innovations in worship.

But on the middle days of Pesah and Sukkot, the promenade sprouts moveable police barriers and private security guards. Sometimes I’m stopped on the same route I cycle daily and I’m told either to show my backpack for inspection or that I can’t pass. During the holidays, when many Israelis have time off to travel and tour, the space is dominated by Elad – the rightwing group that settles Jews in Silwan, a.k.a. David’s City, the Palestinian neighborhood south of the Old City where the original ancient Jerusalem once stood. Elad also runs Segway tours of the promenade area on the holidays. All year round, it manages the archeological park in Silwan. How it has gained control of that public property is a story still only partly told (here’s one report). That’s besides the the unanswered question of who has approved its Pesah and Sukkot domination of the promenade.

I don’t know if the “Ancient Jerusalem Safari” is run by Elad or someone else, for profit or not. From the name, I’ll guess that the story told by the tour guide on that bus is much the same as the story told by Elad’s guides: There’s ancient Jewish Jerusalem, and there’s today. The milestones that matter in history are King David’s conquest, and the paratroops taking the city in June 1967.

I’ll leave for another time the grand archaeological debate about whether David and his united kingdom ever existed, and of the dating of the latest finds in the City of David. My own faith doesn’t depend on the precise historicity of the books of Samuel and Kings. Neither does my belief that this is the Jewish homeland depend on the finds of the latest excavation. In the large picture – the ancient past viewed across the valley of intervening centuries – Jews began their history here, and left, and returned.

But when you tell a story of the past, you never tell everything. Otherwise 3,000 years of history would take 3,000 years to tell. The problem with what I’ll call – for simplicity’s sake – the Elad narrative is what it very deliberately leaves out: Everything that makes Jerusalem’s history a story shared by others, a history of other peoples and faiths.

There are alternative tours of Jerusalem these days that show the Israeli checkpoints and the security wall snaking through the hills. I have no problem with telling that story – I do it often in print. But that is also a very selective telling. It contains the tragedy but not the mystery of Jerusalem

The beginning of peace in Jerusalem might be shared tours, Israelis and Palestinians together, with two guides. They would visit Jewish ruins, and Christian and Muslim ruins. They would tell about Solomon, wisest of kings, and also about Saladdin, a Muslim conquerer of Jerusalem so generous in victory that he became medieval Christian Europe’s paragon of chivalry. On the promenade, they would point to the Temple Mount, a.ka. Al-Aqsa, and tell both how God told Abraham there that he did not need to sacrifice his son and how Muhammad rose to heaven to receive the commandment of praying five times daily. The guides could also point to a Jew praying, and to a Muslim, and to the families playing soccer, and say, “This is the city where they live.”

4 thoughts on “Southern Exposure: Telling Jerusalem Differently”

  1. Gershom : My views of Jerusalem from a non-Jew and a rather non-literalist Christian.Your piece struck a note with me. After I broke away from the highly structured tour and ventured on my own , in the early morning,later in the afternoon, and in the evening a day last month.I saw a peaceful city bustling with all kinds of people of various religious and ethnic groups doing what people do, interact and carrying on some of their daily religious disciplines.I saw the presence of security in it’s various forms.After over three weeks in Israel I paid little notice to the armed soldiers and police.They became part of the landscape.Their reason for being is obvious.The uniqueness of the topography is very pleasing and soothing to the eye. Walking all over the city and talking to people is what Americans should do instead of wasting their time pushing each other to take a digital snapshot of an alledged “holy site”. I believe that my religious beliefs are based more in the content rather than in form of some religious site,but thats me. I don’t ask that others believe or even give credance to my point of view

    My euphoria of that day was schattered later the next evening when I heard sirens coming from the West of the City almost constantly and I found out that a East Jerusalem Moslem had shot and killed 8 rabbinical students and wounded many more. The question I posed to my American – born Israeli quide was “how do you adjust to such an event?” .Her response was ” we go on” I then asked her why she left the convivial confines of a beautiful city up the Hudson ; she said ” you have seen Jerusalem up close and personal and with me it’s organic ,my grandmother was the first woman to demand her right to milk cows on one of the early kibbutz and my children can see her name in their history books”

  2. I’ve been lucky enough to enjoy Jerusalem as Gershom describes it. Some of my favorite tourist photos are of children playing soccer on the grounds of Al-Haram al-Sharif, Christians walking up the Via Dolorosa, Jews and Arabs enjoying the Promenade. It is a truly remarkable international city with something for everyone.

    Unfortunately, the politics of many insist on an “us vs. them” view of the world, with agendas that aren’t served by images of people living normal lives and getting along.

    “Pay no attention to those peaceful residents …”

    Yes, I’m sure there are tours whose message doesn’t include people getting along with each other in this marvelous place. But it happens, it’s real, and as Gershom points out, deserves to be noticed more.

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